It is an open question whether the sight of decades-old regimes crumbling in the face of mass unrest will spread to nations beyond the Arab world. In fact, institutionalized single-party regimes such as that ruling China are much more resilient than the sclerotic personal dictatorships that have been toppling in the Middle East.
Many eyes have turned to China, since the Tiananmen events of 1989 suggest the potential for such upheaval is present. Activists did try to organize some gatherings in Beijing and other cities from Feb. 20 on, but these were nipped in the bud by a heavy preemptive response from the security forces.
The consensus among outside observers is that the Chinese state is immune to the “jasmine effect” for two reasons.
First, the state is experienced in dealing with protest, with a wide array of subtle and not-so-subtle tools at its disposal. Second, China has seen extraordinary economic growth over the past three decades. This means young Chinese can see opportunities for individual advancement and do not have such a bleak view of their life-chances as is typical for the majority of Arab youth.
Yet the Tunisian and Egyptian states also had a large, well-equipped and ruthless police apparatus. And they had also been implementing economic reforms and experiencing a growth spurt. The problem is that few of the fruits of this growth were trickling down from the corrupt ruling elite, and hence the reforms raised expectations faster than they delivered results.
This sounds quite similar to the situation in China. But there are several other factors to bear in mind before leaping to the conclusion that this wave of democratization will reach Chinese shores.
The most obvious is that China is not ruled by a single unconstrained dictator, entrenched for decades, of the likes of Hosni Mubarak, Muammar el-Qaddafi or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
In contrast to most authoritarian regimes (including Russia), since the death of Mao Zedong the Chinese Communist Party has managed to institutionalize a collective leadership with regular rotation at the top. The leadership has been continuously experimenting, innovating and adapting since 1978.
The Tiananmen crackdown was followed not by retrenchment, but by an acceleration of economic reforms. While cracking down on direct political challenges, the state has created some public space for discourse about change, and has demonstratively punished a small number of prominent officials for corruption (“killing the chicken to scare the monkeys”).
China’s layered federal structure means that Beijing has been quite successful in deflecting criticism of corruption and mismanagement onto local cadres.
All this means that even though intellectuals are fully cognizant of the corruption and inequality accompanying China’s growth, they believe that working with and within the state offers a better chance for success than taking to the streets. It is precisely the absence of such a hope that drove the young professionals of Tunisia and Egypt to march through the poor districts of Tunis and Cairo, rousing the poor.
Fear of mass unrest runs deep among Chinese elites. The Cultural Revolution was a mortifying experience, one that gave rise to the cautious pragmatism that has characterized subsequent generations of leaders. Similarly, the tragedy of Tiananmen was a sobering lesson for would-be democratic revolutionaries. None of the Arab countries have this kind of experience in their recent history.
Finally, the Chinese state has successfully harnessed nationalism as the core principle of its ideological legitimation. In the “Arab spring” it was street protesters, and not the regime, who were able to appropriate the symbols and language of national revival. As the Libyan author Hisham Matar said on Al Jazeera, “People in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya are rediscovering what it means to be a people — their national identity, their sense of themselves.”
So, while the jasmine revolution and its offshoots have no doubt caused many a sleepless night for Chinese leaders, it is unlikely that the democratic contagion will have any lasting impact in Beijing.
By Peter Rutland, a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut and Orion A. Lewis, a postdoctoral research associate in Wesleyan’s Program on Terrorism and Insurgency Research and author of the forthcoming book Pluralized Authoritarianism: The Evolution of the News Media in China.